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Minister's Corner - January 2023

MLK was nearly a UU!

In a recent MLK day sermon, a former UU minister wrote something I had heard

rumors of before. The surprising news was that MLK had flirted with Unitarian

Universalism. I got some confirmation from a report Rosemary Bray McNatt

made from her encounter with Coretta Scott King, when she was being considered

as a possible co-writer of Coretta Scott King’s autobiography.

When they sat down to get to know one another, and Rosemary mentioned that she was in

seminary, training for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, Mrs. King’s eyes lit up.

“Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin", she said,

"And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston."[1] I've also come across the following quote, "(We), …gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian."

Why couldn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. be a Unitarian?

According to McNatt's reporting, King was initially thrilled, liberated even, by religious liberalism, especially by our unflagging faith in the essential goodness of human nature and by our use of reason in religion.

However, … “as the Civil Rights Movement began to pick up steam, he (King) noticed that a reasoned, rational approach was great for developing opinions and intellectual positions – but when white-robed men with torches rode through the streets or lines of policemen waded in with billy clubs – reason often proved too brittle to stand its ground.”

“Ugh! True!” That is my own response - not Rosemary’s.

Seemingly, King’s most serious reservation about becoming a Unitarian Minister

was that he feared that mostly white, mostly well-off Unitarians would never rise up, risk their privilege, and lay it on the line when the make-it-or-break-it moment came.

Ow! or as the kids say “snap!” That is hard to hear and probably true.

MLK’s own personal experience with Unitarian Universalism began when he was a student at Boston University, back in the early 1950s. While getting his Ph.D. in town he attended services at a few of the local Unitarian churches, and from the reports and rumors I have heard, somewhere between occasionally and frequently attended the Arlington St. Church, in particular, to listen to Rev. Dana Greeley. He claimed that Greely was “of inestimable value in the continuance of our humble efforts.”[2]

That’s a cool and painful ‘what if’. Isn’t it?

An even better question is; would he have accomplished all he did had he actually

become a UU?

King was invited to be the Ware Lecturer at the Hollywood Florida General Assembly in 1966. In that speech, less than two years before he was killed, he delivered another speech titled “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution,” compelling us as UUs to live up to the church’s responsibility to be the moral guardian of community and society.

We both are, and are not, fulfilling that call. However, what time is better than now to heed it?

What time is better than now, with a quarter of our country living with seemingly every instinct and intention contrary to our own efforts to fulfill that potential?

What a time to prove him wrong - that from out of our reason and prudence and privilege, as a predominantly white denomination, we are capable of being that moral guardian?

What a time to prove King wrong.


[1] Rosemary Bray McNatt, “To Pray Without Apology” in the UU World, November/December 2002.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr., Witnessing for the Truth, Unitarian Universalism, Beacon Press 2014.


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